While some of us were looking the other way, the Arab Film Festival has grown into a formidable showcase for international Arab cinema. Now in its fifth incarnation, Cinemayaat: The Arab Film Festival opens Thursday at the Roxie Cinema with an ambitious program that comes in three waves and three venues, ending Sept. 16 at the Fine Arts Theater in Berkeley.
The festival showcases films of all varieties, including political films that are challenging in the true sense of the word, eloquently expressing political viewpoints that not everyone will agree with. Take, for example, the documentary features and shorts contained in the series "Iraq: 10 Years of Sanctions." These are not films designed to send viewers into the night congratulating themselves for their virtue. They exist, rather, to provoke disagreement and discussion.
Among the films in the "Iraq" series are "The Children of the Embargo" (2000) from director Amr Alwan, a 27-minute short that focuses on one child's struggle to survive in a nation with restricted access to food and medicine. Then there's "Invisible War" (2000), a French expose of America's use of depleted-uranium weapons in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Some films deal with political issues in only a tangential way. For example,
there's "Poetical Refuge" (2000), which opens the festival's four-day run at the Roxie with its story of a North African immigrant who tries to achieve resident status in Paris by pretending to be a refugee from the Algerian war.
"Poetical Refuge," a French-Tunisian film from Tunisian director Abdel Kechiche, shows the seamy side of Paris -- the dives, the homeless shelters, the scenes of people living on the fringes -- as the protagonist befriends native Parisians, who are also down and out. Among them is a young woman played by the remarkable Elodie Bouchez, who made a big impact with her starring role in "The Dreamlife of Angels" (1998).
The festival will pay tribute to the work of Syrian director Mohammad Malas,
showing three of his TV-length documentaries (on video) and two of his feature films. "City Dreams" (1983) was his feature debut, an autobiographical film about a family in turmoil in the midst of the political upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s. Malas deals not only with the strains caused by politics but also those caused by traditional Arab culture.
Malas' documentary "The Dream" (1987) is powerful, built around a single, simple strategy. Malas interviews Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, asking them to tell him what they've been dreaming about. In example after example, Malas finds that they've been dreaming about the political situation, in free- flowing, elliptical and disturbing ways.
"When one sleeps, the control retreats and the images escape, filled with desires and lusts," says Malas. "That is why the dreams are more truthful in expressing the inner desires. I wanted to uncover a human image of the Palestinian other than the image presented by the media and the propaganda. An inner image." In the process he shows how invasions aren't just about land. They invade the mind.
The Arab Film Festival plays Saturday and Sunday at the Towne Theater in San Jose, providing South Bay audiences with a condensed version of the event. On Sept. 12 the festival moves to the Fine Arts Theater in Berkeley, where it will close Sept. 16.
Fine Arts run is not a repeat of the Roxie run but an extension of the
festival. Different films will be shown at that location, including "Thirst,"
about the struggle for Moroccan independence as seen from the standpoint
of a Moroccan servant to the occupying French lieutenant. Call for show
times and venues.
CINEMAYAAT: THE ARAB FILM FESTIVAL will play Thursday through Sunday at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco, Saturday and Sunday at the Towne Theater in San Jose and Sept. 12-16 at the Fine Arts in Berkeley, Tickets: $9 general admission; $7 students, seniors and disabled; $70 festival pass. Call (415) 564-1100 or visit www.aff.org.
E-mail Mick LaSalle at @cf,el email@example.com.